February 5, 2013

Longer school days, shorter summers under Portland school plan

The district is looking to create more learning time for students and more professional development time for teachers.

By Noel K. Gallagher ngallagher@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND - The Portland school year could change dramatically under proposed calendar adjustments that include adding an hour to each school day, starting high school an hour later, combining the two post-Christmas breaks into one March break, and shortening the summer break.

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Ajna Hasanovic, 17, left, and Ava Zwolinski, 16, both juniors at Portland High School, discuss proposed changes to the school calendar. Zwolinski would like to see the school day start later. Hasanovic said a longer day would eat into time for sports.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette / Staff Photographer

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Some of the calendar changes under consideration by Portland Schools officials:

•  Add one hour to school day

•  Start school year earlier

•  One less vacation week

•  Shorter summer break

•  Later start to high school day

•  Evening class options for high school students


Currently, Portland’s school year begins the first week after Labor Day and runs until early or mid-June, depending on the number of snow days. Portland has 180 school instruction days, although the state only requires 175 school instruction days – the fourth-lowest in the nation, according to federal data. A school day in Maine can be no shorter than 3 hours, and must average five hours a day over any two consecutive week period. In Portland, high schools run from 8 a.m. to 2:10 p.m.; middle schools from 8:25 a.m. to 2:35 p.m.; and elementary schools from 8:55 a.m. to 3:05 p.m.

According to a draft proposal, the Portland School District is considering the following changes:

In school year 2013-14:

Go from one-hour early release on Wednesdays from October to May, to a half-day release on the 2nd and 4th Wednesdays of each month.

Start the school year earlier, with teacher work days in the last week of August and the first school day on the Tuesday following Labor Day.

In school year 2014-15:

Extend the school day by one hour each day.

Start high school later in the morning.

Other ideas:

Shorten summer break in order to minimize lost learning.

Change vacation schedule to one March break, eliminating the February and April breaks.

Create full-day professional development time.

Allow a longer flexible school day for high school, with classes in the day and evening, and students elect when to attend.

Create district-sponsored camps, after-school care and summer programs as income generators for the district.

Source: Portland Public Schools


All of those proposals are on the table as officials look to create more learning time for students and more professional development time for teachers, officials say.

"I think that would be the best thing ever," Portland High School junior Ava Zwolinski, 16, said about starting her school day an hour later. "I'm really tired in the morning and it seems I don't do the best work I could because I'm so exhausted."

Recent research has shown that high school students score higher on tests if their school day starts later. Like many cities, Portland starts its high schools at 8 a.m., because the district staggers start times between older and younger students to accommodate bus schedules.

Other changes being considered include changing the early-release days schedule to create longer periods of time for teacher professional development, creating district-sponsored camps, summer programs and after-school care to provide a source of revenue, and making the first school day for students the Tuesday after Labor Day

District officials are seeking feedback on the plans, with responses to an online survey due by Friday. The Portland school board will hold a workshop on the proposals Feb. 12. A steering committee will finalize the proposal and it will go to the full board on Feb. 26 for a first read.

To see the online survey and list of proposed changes, click here.

Several proposals would increase instruction time, an idea that several parents enthusiastically supported.

"I think it's a great idea," said Rob Welling, a retired Postal Service worker whose daughter is a junior at Deering High School. "I would support year-round school. When I was stationed in Germany, that's how they did it. It would make them more on a par with other countries."

He also liked the idea of starting high school an hour later.

"It is very difficult to get my daughter up in the morning," he said with a laugh. "They do need their sleep and kids just want to stay up late."

Two proposals could begin as early as this fall. One would change a weekly one-hour early release on Wednesdays for teacher development to a half-day release every other Wednesday. The second would start classes on the Tuesday after Labor Day and schedule two teacher workdays during the last week of August.

But the Portland Educators' Association is lukewarm to those ideas, according to its president.

"A number of our teachers work in the tourism industry -- as do our students -- and our tourism season goes through the Labor Day weekend," said Kathleen Casasa. Last fall, the teachers-only workdays were held the Tuesday and Wednesday after Labor Day, the first day of class was Thursday and kindergarteners started school the following Monday.

The draft proposal noted that parents were unhappy about that schedule, calling it disruptive and difficult for families.

Casasa also noted that adding an extra hour to the school day would interfere with after-school sports programs.

Portland High School junior Ajna Hasanovic said a longer day would eat into time for sports, particularly in the winter when it gets dark early.

"We already have plenty of (school) time," Hasanovic said. "Many kids do extra activities after school."

Casasa said that the bigger proposals -- such as changing winter and spring break weeks and summer vacation -- would require more research before the union would take a position.

"When it is put in front of us, as educators, we would be looking for the sound education reasons for making a change," Casasa said. "Not just making a change to make a change."

School board President Jaimey Caron said he thought there would eventually be broad support for increasing instruction time.

"There is a craving for better performance at the schools and to better prepare our kids," he said. "If you start from the standpoint of what's best for students, what seem to be obstacles melt away."

The union's decision last year to switch five professional development days to student instruction days is a "recognition that longer days and more days are important to students," Caron said.

"Some of these things are radical and fairly big changes to folks. It's always natural to push back," Caron said. "I have a feeling there is more consensus and agreement than there is disagreement. ... First you have to decide it's important to make a change."

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has long advocated for a longer school year and other reform efforts to make U.S. students more competitive in a global market.

"Whether educators have more time to enrich instruction or students have more time to learn how to play an instrument and write computer code, adding meaningful in-school hours is a critical investment that better prepares children to be successful in the 21st century," Duncan has said.

Other states have moved to a longer school day. Schools in five states recently announced a joint effort to add at least 300 hours of learning time, a project funded with a mix of state, federal and local funds and money from the Ford Foundation and the National Center on Time & Learning.

Last month, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo called for a longer school day and school year in his State of the State address, and said the state would pay for it.

Experts say additional class time gives students the chance for additional help, a reinforced science and math curriculum and the opportunity for more "electives" such as art and music. A report from the National Center on Time & Learning, which advocates for more instruction time, cites a study by Harvard economist Roland Fryer, which found that one of the best predictors of academic success was adding at least 300 hours to the standard school calendar.

The idea of a shorter summer break to minimize "lost" learning has been around for a while, said David Silvernail, director of the Center for Education Policy, Applied Research and Evaluation at the University of Southern Maine.

"The research shows that some of that summer loss goes away if there is year-round school," Silvernail said. "The practical problem it runs into is vacations."

Another issue when changing the calendar is money. The draft proposal notes that the half-day release change could cost the school lunch program an estimated $60,000 in lost revenue per year.

Chief Academic Officer David Galin said the district would have to work out the logistics of adopting any of the proposed changes, but said those practical questions are secondary to improving students' academic achievements. From an academic standpoint, Galin said, he supports a longer school day, but he agreed with Casasa that any change to instruction time must have a high expectation of improving students' experience.

"Extended time (in the classroom) means changing and improving what we do in the curriculum," he said.

Parent Kathleen Keane said she likes the proposals.

"I'm supportive of changes that are going to make the school day longer, and I think there are too many breaks," said Keane, whose son, Moses Small, is a freshman at Portland High School. "I know the kids might not be too happy ... but it would help them. Sometimes it's hard to break with tradition."

Staff Writer Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:


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Today's poll: School schedules

Do you agree with the proposed changes to Portland schools' schedules?



View Results